Hundreds of mourners attended funerals in Pakistan on Monday after a suicide bombing killed at least 54 people at an election rally for a pro-Taliban cleric, carrying caskets draped in colorful cloths to burial sites in the hills.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for Sunday’s bombing in Bajur that killed at least five children and wounded nearly 200 people.
The attack appeared to reflect divisions between Islamist groups, which have a strong presence in the district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province that borders Afghanistan. It targeted the Jamiat Ulema Islam party, which has ties to the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban.
At 1,000 people, according to police, were crowded into a tent near a market for the rally ahead of fall elections.
“People were chanting God is Great as the leaders arrived,” said Khan Mohammad, a local resident who said he was standing outside the tent, “and that was when I heard the deafening sound of the bomb.”
Mohammad said he heard people crying for help, and minutes later ambulances arrived and began taking the wounded away.
Police said their initial investigation suggested that the Islamic State group’s regional affiliate, a rival of the Taliban, could be responsible, while a Pakistan security analyst pointed to breakaway factions of the Pakistani Taliban as possible suspects.
The Pakistani military spent years fighting the Pakistani Taliban, also known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, in Bajur before declaring the district clear of militants in 2016. But the Jamiat Ulema Islam party, headed by hard-line cleric and politician Fazlur Rehman, has remained a potent political force.
On Monday, police recorded statements from some of the wounded at a hospital in Khar, the district’s principal town.
The Islamic State in Khorasan Province, which police identified as a suspect in the attack, is based in neighboring Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province and is a rival of the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaida.
Pakistani security analyst Mahmood Shah said some TTP members have been known to disobey their top leadership to carry out attacks, as have breakaway factions of the group.
Shah said such factions could have perpetrated the attack to cause “confusion, instability and unrest ahead of the elections.”
On Monday, female relatives and children wailed and beat their chests at family homes as the dead were taken for funerals, following local customs. Hundreds of men followed the caskets to mosques and open areas for special funeral prayers and then into the hills for burial.
As condolences continued to pour in from across the country, dozens of people who had lesser injuries were discharged from hospital, while the critically wounded were taken to the provincial capital of Peshawar by army helicopters. The death toll continued to rise as some critically wounded people died in hospital, physician Gul Naseeb said.
Gul Akbar, the father of an 11-year-old boy who was wounded in the attack, told The Associated Press that his entire family was in a state of shock after hearing about the bombing Sunday. He said he first went to the scene of the attack, and later found his son Taslim Khan being treated in a hospital in Khar.
“What would I have done if he had also been martyred? Five children died in this barbaric attack, and we want to know what our children did wrong,” he said.
Rehman’s party is preparing to contest elections, which are expected in October or November. Abdul Rasheed, one of the party’s senior leaders, said the bombing was aimed at weakening the party but that “such attacks cannot deter our resolve.”
Rehman’s party is part of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s coalition government, which came to power in April 2022 by ousting former Prime Minister Imran Khan through a no-confidence vote in the legislature.
Sharif called Rehman to express his condolences and assure the cleric that those who orchestrated the attack would be punished. Khan condemned the bombing Sunday, as did the U.S. and Russian embassies in Islamabad.
The Pakistani Taliban also distanced themselves from the bombing, saying that it was intended to set Islamists against each other. Zabihullah Mujahid, the spokesman for the Afghan Taliban, wrote in a tweet that “such crimes cannot be justified in any way.”
The bombing came hours before Chinese Vice Premier He Lifeng arrived in Islamabad, where he signed new agreements to boost trade and economic ties to mark a decade of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a sprawling package under which China has invested $10 billion in Pakistan over 10 years, according to Sharif.
“We will not tolerate any obstacles in the way of friendship with China,” Sharif said, as he stood next to He.
But the government canceled a cultural event that had been arranged in honor of He, according to Sharif, while the nation mourns.
Some Chinese nationals have also been targeted by militants in northwestern Pakistan and elsewhere.
Rehman, who has long supported Afghanistan’s Taliban government, survived at least two known bomb attacks in 2011 and 2014, when bombings damaged his car at rallies.
Sunday’s bombing was one of the worst in northwestern Pakistan in the last decade. In 2014, 147 people, mostly schoolchildren, were killed in a Taliban attack on an army-run school in Peshawar.
In January, 74 people were killed in a bombing at a mosque in Peshawar. And in February, more than 100 people, mostly policemen, died in a bombing at a mosque inside a high-security compound housing Peshawar police headquarters.
Associated Press writer Munir Ahmed contributed to this story from Islamabad.
Anwarullah Khan And Riaz Khan, The Associated Press